Hipster Vampires in the Ruins of Motor City

Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is an awfully seductive movie if you don't make the mistake of thinking you're just waiting for the languid set-up scenes to be over and done with.

If you're wondering when something will, y'know, happen, not a lot does, and you've been warned. But it's bound to resonate most among people attuned to—well, familiar with, anyhow—the director's very generationally specific, bohemian-artsy subcultural cosmos, a group that happens to include me. Either directly invoked or imaginatively distorted, our old badges of cool and secret-sharer identifiers are on display like dusty ornaments on an unlit Christmas tree.

Knowing the whole dingus will end up curbside come New Year's, the way Christmas trees always do, is very much on the now 61-year-old-Jarmusch's mind. In Only Lovers, he's confronting—and mourning—the fact that all this wonderful music, style and attitude that meant so much to him and his chic-hunting peers will soon end up in history's dustbin. Unless, of course, he can avert that by inventing a couple of  vampires with tastes similar to his. Their understandable indifference to calendars guarantees that they'll not only go on preserving his hipster ethos forever, but be able to comfortably reminiscence about its dandyish forerunners through the centuries.

Nowadays—probably not the most significant concept to the undead —Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is camped out in a rotting house in Detroit.  A rock god turned hermit in his latest ageless incarnation, he's down in the dumps enough about world civ's decline to be contemplating suicide—also not the most significant concept to the undead, but he's figured out a way.  That's why his worried longtime inamorata, named Eve (duh, and I could wish otherwise, too) and played by a flowing-haired, wraithly glam Tilda Swinton, flies in from Tangier, where she's been hanging out with their old pal and fellow bloodsucker: Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, still prowling the planet some 400 years after his supposed death (played by the craggy John Hurt).

Now that they're all in the undead version of their AARP years, they're  ultra-civilized and avoid violence, obtaining their blood from sub rosa suppliers instead of preying on pathetic old us. Once Eve shows up at Adam's, the lovers mostly just chat about their gazillion yesterdays, swapping jokes about Schubert and such. (Hurt's Marlowe gets to make cracks about Shakespeare, too.) Even Adam's current passion—collecting vintage midcentury recording equipment—preserves the past.

Does any of this leave you craving a crib sheet? Well, okay.  

Hiddleston's character evokes rock recluse Phil Spector, combined with a touch of Nirvana's suicidal Kurt Cobain. The shadow behind them both is Keith Richards, the rock world's most legendary junkie.  Since he's still with us at age 70, Richards may very well be undead. For all I know,  a once famous rumor that he used to have his junk-tainted blood replaced annually at a clinic in Switzerland to stay, um, fit may well have helped inspire Jarmusch.

While Swinton's Eve suggests any number of soiled '60s rock and film goddesses turned survivors, ultimately she might as well be sporting a convention-style ID sticker reading "Hi, I'm Marianne Faithfull"—as in Mick Jagger's onetime honey and Richards' fellow onetime junkie. As for Eva's troublemaking younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), whose arrival triggers the movie's only moments of ruckus, it's hard to resist seeing her as a harbinger of the punk era—that is,  Jarmusch's own—that disruptively followed Mick-Keith-Marianne et. al.

As schematic as all this may sound when it's spelled out, that's my fault and not Jarmusch's. These references are such lingua franca to him that he probably wouldn't even call them references—conversational givens is more like it—and nobody's ever accused him of excessive directness.

But the movie's two capital cities, so to speak, were hardly chosen at random.  Seen mostly at night (one guess why), Detroit's decay is persistently linked in Adam and Eve's dialogue to the Motown label's bygone heyday;  we're looking at the ruins of rock and roll, not the auto industry's graveyard. As for Tangier, it was the Beat Generation's favorite home away from home. That's why my hunch is that John Hurt isn't playing Christopher Marlowe so much as he's playing William S. Burroughs in Marlowe disguise.

All in all, it's a wonder Jarmusch avoided just flat-out quoting the T.S. Eliot chestnut that captures the mood of Only Lovers Left Alive in a nutshell: "These fragments have I shored against my ruins."  Although a very different sort of chestnut—"Rock and roll will never die"—would clearly be inapposite here, Jarmusch clearly hopes the sensibility informing his version of 20th-century bohemia can be preserved by other means, which clearly don't include vampires. By a peculiar coincidence, they do include movies made by directors who were there at the time.

 

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